Rob Howley will become Wales’ 22nd head coach when he assumes caretaker duties against the Barbarians at the Millennium Stadium on Saturday, 2 June and for the following three-Test, four-match, tour of Australia.
The former Wales captain and British and Irish Lions backs coach, today made the first expression of his intent to pick up exactly where Warren Gatland left off, before enforced absence, by confirming he will retain Sam Warburton as his tour captain.
Wales’ tour ambitions have received a significant boost with the news that inspirational leader Warburton has been declared fit and available to travel Down Under and it has also been announced that fellow Cardiff Blues flanker, veteran Martyn Williams, will join him as a part of Howley’s summer training squad (to be announced on Monday, 14 May)
“The tour needs some careful planning, we have two games in seven days in two different Hemispheres,” said Howley.
“The clash with the Barbarians in Cardiff kicks everything off and when we get to Australia we have three Test matches and a midweek game.
“Sam’s captaincy credentials are there for everyone to see, we saw his worth in the World Cup leading us to a semi-final and in leading us to a clean sweep at this year’s RBS 6 Nations Championship and it is a major boost for us to hear he will be back from injury and ready for Australia.”
Williams, who earned the last of his 99 caps against Argentina last summer, will be handed the chance to win his elusive 100th against the Baa-Baas at the Millennium Stadium on the first Saturday of next month – Williams is likely to be asked to make an impact from the bench, as his illustrious career turns full circle in a repeat of the fixture which saw him make his international debut in 1996.
With Wales’ first Test on Australian soil coming just seven days after the warm-up fixture in Cardiff, Howley says a number of key players must be sent down under to acclimatise before the Barbarians arrive in town.
Places in the tour party squad will still be up for grabs during the Cardiff Test – the 2012 summer tour will be the largest one-nation tour a Wales team has ever embarked upon – with a total of around 34 players in the eventual party.
But Howley says the opportunity to boost his squad for the Baa-Baas game with the experience of Williams is one that was too tempting to miss, as his captain, Warburton, is likely to be one of those on the early flight to the Southern Hemisphere.
“We have taken the decision to ask Martyn to come in and do a job for us for sound rugby reasons,” said Howley.
“We need to start off the summer with a win against the Baa-Baas, but it is also fitting that he will have the chance to run out in front of a Millennium Stadium crowd one last time to say goodbye.”
Williams, who will become only the third Welsh player in history to reach a century of caps alongside Gareth Thomas (100) and Stephen Jones (104), has announced his retirement from Regional rugby and already played his last match for Cardiff Blues.
He lines up against another retiring legend in Shane Williams, who is also most likely featuring for the final time in a Test match at the Millennium Stadium, and fellow centurion Jones, with the trio bidding against each other to steal the show.
“Martyn is the ultimate professional, he will be a proud man on the day, but once the whistle goes he will be one of 15 players looking for victory and he will do the jersey proud, just as he has done 99 times before.”
Howley, who has been appointed as caretaker head coach for the tour whilst Gatland recovers from leg injuries sustained in an accident at home, added: “In these unforeseen circumstances I’m delighted and proud to have been given the opportunity to be the interim head coach.
“The fact that I feel both ready and able to take on the challenges ahead is testament to the integrated approach Warren Gatland has taken to building his international squad and coaching team over the last four years.”